Grumpy Sunshine, Orderly Chaos: Opposites Attracting in Talia Hibbert’s Act Your Age, Eve Brown

Photo by Daniel Romero on Unsplash

The third book in Talia Hibbert’s Brown Sisters series, Act Your Age, Eve Brown, delivers a tropey take on an unlikely love story between two apparent polar opposites. Eve is a “purple-haired tornado of a woman,” a “natural-born nemesis” to stiff and orderly Jacob. However as the blurb promises (making every romance reader sit up and pay attention) “the longer these two enemies spend in close quarters, the more their animosity turns into something else.” Classic enemies-to-lovers, opposites attract? Well, yes and no. Today’s post is going to look at how right from the very beginning – in fact, from the first moments Eve and Jacob meet – this book plays with how much common ground love can find in opposition.

Eve Brown is a certified hot mess. No matter how hard she strives to do right, her life always goes horribly wrong—so she’s given up trying. But when her personal brand of chaos ruins an expensive wedding (someone had to liberate those poor doves), her parents draw the line. It’s time for Eve to grow up and prove herself—even though she’s not entirely sure how…
Jacob Wayne is in control. Always. The bed and breakfast owner’s on a mission to dominate the hospitality industry—and he expects nothing less than perfection. So when a purple-haired tornado of a woman turns up out of the blue to interview for his open chef position, he tells her the brutal truth: not a chance in hell. Then she hits him with her car—supposedly by accident. Yeah, right.
Now his arm is broken, his B&B is understaffed, and the dangerously unpredictable Eve is fluttering around, trying to help. Before long, she’s infiltrated his work, his kitchen—and his spare bedroom. Jacob hates everything about it. Or rather, he should. Sunny, chaotic Eve is his natural-born nemesis, but the longer these two enemies spend in close quarters, the more their animosity turns into something else. Like Eve, the heat between them is impossible to ignore—and it’s melting Jacob’s frosty exterior.

Cover image and blurb from the author’s website. CWs are provided in the front matter of the book.

Because so much of this book is about seeing and being seen, it stands to reason that a lot rides on the moment the reader first sees Eve and Jacob, and the moment they first see each other. Eve Brown is written in alternating 3rd person POV, and it’s organized such that both Eve and Jacob are introduced individually to the reader in their own POV sections. Shortly after that first introduction, we then see Jacob through Eve’s eyes and vice versa.

In the two short moments where Eve and Jacob present themselves, they focus on how they are misunderstood by others. But in so doing, they come across to the reader as two people with a very similar struggle to be seen and understood. It’s when they first meet that their distinct personalities – an order-loving grump and a chaotic ray of sunshine- snap into place. But just as Eve and Jacob start to appear differently to the reader, they move to an interesting piece of common ground, as neither one of them yet fully perceives who the other one is.

Let’s start with our first introduction to Eve and Jacob: the very first sentences we get about each of them in their own POV. These occur in Chapters 1 and 2 respectively: 

Eve Brown didn’t keep a diary. She kept a journal. There was a difference.

Contrary to popular belief, Jacob Wayne did not create awkward situations on purpose.

These sentences differ in a few noticeable ways. Eve – a born performer with a self-assured personality – kicks things off by offering her own full name, making her the star of the show. Jacob, slightly more shy of the spotlight, emerges a few words into his sentence from behind the weight of “popular belief.” This difference is echoed in the chapter structure too: the first chapter starts with Eve’s perspective, whereas Jacob doesn’t take over the POV of the second chapter until several pages in. They also display a different level of formality in their speech. While they use the same basic negation structure, Eve’s is a contraction (didn’t) unlike Jacob’s (did not), reflecting Eve’s more casual style and Jacob’s adherence to proper formalities. 

However, all things considered, their first introductions have more fundamental commonalities than differences. To begin with, they both make categorical statements establishing themselves as people with a clear vision of who they are. Eve is a journal person, not a diary person. Jacob does not create awkward situations on purpose. What strikes me the most is that the use of categorical statements coupled with negation suggests that they share a history of being misunderstood. Eve’s addition of “there was a difference” to her first statements suggests that she, like Jacob, feels compelled to amend popular belief about the fundamentals of who she is. There is an element of self-justification to their introductions, a correction of the record that implicitly asks readers to understand them better than others have. The need to be understood turns out to be central to both characters, when it comes to how they socialize, how they relate to their families, and how they move through the world.

As readers, we have 375 delightful pages full of chances to understand Eve and Jacob better. We also get to watch them learn about themselves through their relationship to each other, one of the best journeys a romance novel can take. When Eve first presents Eve, and Jacob first presents Jacob, they sound pretty similar to each other – categorical and record-correcting and clear on who they are. When they first see each other, however, they sound like fundamentally different people.

Here’s Jacob’s first look at Eve, when she shows up unannounced to interview for a chef position at his B&B:

After a moment’s hesitating an unfamiliar face popped itself through the gap in the door. Jacob assumed the face was attached to a body, but all he could see right now was a head, a little bit of neck, and a whole lot of purple braids. 

“Hello,” the floating head said. “I’m here for the interview.”

Assertive and straight to the point: good. Complete stranger, unscheduled: bad. The kind of crisp accent Jacob usually heard from the guests themselves: potential issue. Hovering in the door like a supernatural creature: undecided. 

And Eve’s first impression of Jacob, as she reflects on how different he is from what she expected from a charming B&B owner:

Jacob Wayne should, by rights, be an old married couple with a twinkle in their eye who looked upon the world at large with kindness and goodwill and would be happy to hire Eve so that she could start her journey to self-actualization in a job she’d never get too attached to. 

Instead, Jacob Wayne was a single man, not much older than her, and the twinkle in his eye was more of a steely, judgmental glint. Or maybe that was just the light flashing off his silver-rimmed glasses. Those glasses were balanced on a strong, Roman nose that someone should probably break, because all his features were strong and Roman and that likely had something to do with how he’d become so arrogant. The man was disgustingly, inescapably, thoroughly handsome, and as Gigi often said, A handsome man is a fearsome liability to everyone but himself. 

Jacob’s first glance at Eve shows how reliant he is on order, as well as on concrete, observable phenomena. The second half of the passage, in particular, reads as a kind of hybrid between the notes Jacob might be taking as he meets job candidates, and the more general way he approaches the world. The statement “complete stranger, unscheduled” suggests a mental record of encounters structured like an academic book index: by extension, we can assume that the previous interview fell under the pre-established category of “complete stranger, scheduled.” 

Jacob perceives Eve mostly as a list of what is physically apparent “a head, a little bit of neck, and a whole lot of purple braids.” Rather endearingly, he reins in his powers of imagination so strictly that he only “assume[s]” the face is attached to a body, a conceptual leap that most people would be ready to make. That being said, his strict observations create surprising spaces for creativity: because he’s not willing to surmise what Eve’s head might or might not be attached to, we are treated to the slightly fantastical descriptions of Eve as a “floating head” and a “supernatural creature.” This lets us see early on how Jacob’s order and literal-ness can hold space for Eve’s whimsy. 

In contrast to Jacob’s adherence to the observable realties of Eve, Eve’s first impression of Jacob gives almost as much space to imaginative speculation as it does to physical appearance. She starts by devoting an entire sentence to who she thought would be running Jacob’s B&B, spinning out a fanciful portrait of two twinkly-eyed elderly owners that ends in musings about her own career woes. Indeed, her sentences rarely end up in the same place they started, with a looping logic that sits in start contrast to Jacob’s listing and order. 

But just as Jacob’s lists make space for whimsy, Eve’s creative imaginings are open to revision. She sees Jacob as judgmental, but also admits that it might be a trick of perception created by the “light flashing off his silver-rimmed glasses.” She recognizes both his strong exterior and, in a subsequent section, its vulnerability to being broken. While others often perceive Eve as off in her own world, untethered from reality, in the presence of Jacob we can see how she keeps herself open to other ways of seeing the world. 

Eve Brown uses its fundamental tension between similarity and difference in so many ways throughout the novel. The novel itself is both a loving homage to the “opposites attract” trope and a clever book-long deconstruction of it – and thus a masterclass in how romance tropes are as much about exploration and change as they are about formula. The book also uses similarity and difference to ground a truly moving moment in which Eve comes to realize she is autistic, in part through talking to Jacob about his diagnosis. She inches towards this realization because of a few traits that she and Jacob share, but more importantly she learns that the same term holds space for experiences as different as Jacob’s and her own. 

Part of the satisfaction, to me, in reading Act Your Age, Eve Brown was how deftly the book moved Eve and Jacob towards each other without every straying from its knowledge of- and commitment to- who the two characters are as individuals. Which, in itself, says a lot about love : as an act of growth into oneself rather than fundamental change, as a search for space and compatibility rather than a resolution of binaries. And the book unfolds all these journeys so deftly, taking readers beyond where they thought they’d be going at just the first look. 

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